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Friday, June 14, 2002


'Allez Nippon!' -- how Japan learned to love M. Troussier

Watched any World Cup matches in the past few weeks? Yelled your heart out? Ready to slit your wrists -- or, more to the point, to strangle a shinpan (referee) or two? Predictably, a few of my friends have sworn never to touch coffee made from Costa Rican beans ever again (what was that referee thinking anyway?).

On the streets and in offices, there's only one acceptable topic of conversation. As a matter of fact, why do you even have the paper turned to this page? As one tabloid headline put it, the entire nation is rocking to sakka netsu (soccer fever) and those with normal body temperature should see a doctor.

Speaking of the tabloids, have you noticed their complete change of heart regarding coach Monsieur Troussier? Only last month many did not hesitate to label him a gankona kacho (stubborn section chief) constantly locking horns with the wayward and dyed-haired wakate shain (young employees) in the kabushikigaisha (corporation) known as Nihon Daihyo (Japan Representatives).

Many also pointed out how the obvious generation gap (inevitable between any coach and his players) was worsened by the lack of easy communication. Unable to directly understand or be understood, Troussier was feared but not loved.

In fact, the word was that in his sporting principles, Troussier was actually more Japanese than any of his players. A veteran sportswriter for the Asahi Shimbun opined that Troussier was far more nihonjinteki (possessed of a Japanese mentality) than his players. This was judged to be the main cause of friction between the coach and the team's key playmaker, Hidetoshi Nakata, who was a nihonjin no kawa o kabutta gaijin (a foreigner wearing the hide of a Japanese).

From the start, Nakata was an entirely new type of Japanese athlete. His irreverent and casual attitude was underscored by his famously cold words to the adoring press: "Subete no kotae wa pitchi de dasu (All your questions will be answered by what I do on the pitch)."

Nakata set the trend for other J-League players who were apt to be described by a tutting press as nishigawateki (Western). The press and public had been conditioned to expect reigi (politeness), kenson (modesty) and aikokushin (patriotism) from the Japanese supotsuman (sportsman), but Nakata was a new breed who held that sport is a business, neither more or less, and must be treated as such.

Troussier, on the other hand, demanded exactly those things that Nakata's example had been purging from Japanese soccer. To Nakata and other young star players, Troussier was an old-school manager who held the outdated view that reverence and obedience were just as important as skill and technique.

But the team's former manager, Takeshi Okada, has said that without Troussier, Japan would never have come this far. He himself had been worried about the generation gap and was saddened by the fact that his young players had plenty of skill but not the dorokusasa (smell of mud, i.e., gutsiness) that often determines the course of a game.

"Those guys were just too cool," was Okada's verdict. "They didn't want a victory no matter what." Okada concludes that Troussier was able to instill that dorokusasa mainly because he was a foreigner: "People in this country rarely change without some sort of gaiatsu (foreign pressure)."

The gaiatsu in this case came from a Frenchman who barked orders and threw tantrums when they weren't carried out. And it worked. We owe him for that.

So far "Troussier Japan," as the team is now being called, is flourishing under gaiatsu, the generation gap and all the other tensions that the domestic media once prophesied would doom the team to defeat. This Friday, Japan plays against Tunisia, and suitably, the operative phrase is a combo of French and Japanese: "Allez Nippon!"

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